In 2002 the Age newspaper in Australia wrote an article claiming that Burnet had a solution to Asia. The title of this newspaper article is Burnet’s Solution: The plan to poison S-E Asia. This heading completely misrepresents the advice that Burnet provided to the Australian government and the context in which this advice was offered.
Burnet was the most highly decorated and honoured scientist to have worked in Australia and he also opposed the Vietnam war and called for an international police force (Sexton 1999, p177).
Burnet served as a member of the Commonwealth government’s Defence Research and Development Policy Committee from 1947 – 1952. This was part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). In this role he was asked for his advice in protecting a sparsely populated Australia from invasion from an Asian country. MacFarlane’s memo stated:
“Specifically to the Australian situation, the most effective counter-offensive to threatened invasion by overpopulated Asiatic countries would be directed towards the destruction by biological or chemical means of tropical food crops and the dissemination of infectious disease capable of spreading in tropical but not under Australian conditions.”
This comment in the context of advising on the protection of the Australian population does not constitute a “Plan to Poison S-E Asia”. In December 1946, the Secretary of the Department of Defence wrote to Burnet saying that they could not ignore the fact that many countries were conducting research on biological warfare and he was invited to a meeting to discuss this question.
In answer to this question Burnet answered:
“The main contribution of local research so far as Australia is concerned might be to study intensively the possibilities of biological warfare in the tropics against troops and civil populations at a relatively low level of hygiene and with correspondingly high resistance to the common infectious diseases.”
At a chemical and biological warfare subcommittee meeting in 1947 he stated:
“that biological warfare could be a powerful weapon to help defend a thinly populated Australia.”
In a note that he wrote in 1948 he said a successful attack with a microbiological agent on a large population would have such a devastating impact that its use was extremely unlikely while both sides were capable of retaliation.
“The main strategic use of biological warfare may well be to administer the coup de grace to a virtually defeated enemy and compel surrender in the same way that the atomic bomb served in 1945. Its use has the tremendous advantage of not destroying the enemy’s industrial potential which can then be taken over intact.”
“Overt biological warfare might be used to enforce surrender by psychological rather than direct destructive measures.”
He noted in 1948 that he “was of the opinion that if Australia undertakes work in this field it should be on the tropical offensive side rather than the defensive.”
In 1950 he told the committee that “that the initiation of epidemics among enemy populations had usually been discarded as a means of waging war because it was likely to rebound on the user. In a country of low sanitation the introduction of an exotic intestinal pathogen, e.g. by water contamination, might initiate widespread dissemination,” he said.
“Introduction of yellow fever into a country with appropriate mosquito vectors might build up into a disabling epidemic before control measures were established.”
It was the DFAT subcommittee that recommended that “the possibilities of an attack on the food supplies of S-E Asia and Indonesia using Biological Weapon agents should be considered by a small study group” and not MacFarlane Burnet as the Age article implies.
The Age article goes on to state that in 1951 the DFAT subcommittee recommended that “a panel reporting to the chemical and biological warfare subcommittee should be authorised to report on the offensive potentiality of biological agents likely to be effective against the local food supplies of South-East Asia and Indonesia”.
The heading and implied comments in The Age article, by an anonymous author, completely misrepresent Burnet’s comments that were made as advice to the question of how to protect Australia from an invasion by an Asian country.
This is quite different to claiming Burnet’s Solution was to Poison S-E Asia.
The anonymous author of this article then uses historian Dr. Dorling’s to make further unsupported claims that reflect upon MacFarlane’s reputation;
“Dr Dorling said that while Sir Macfarlane was a great Australian he was also a product of times when many Australians held deep fears about more populous Asian countries.”
It is clear that this article is an attempt to remove all responsibility for the discussion of biological and chemical warfare from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) by claiming that these discussions were all a result of Burnet’s desire to “poison S-E Asia”. This becomes clearer in the final paragraph that states:
“The secretary of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Peter French, said he had not yet seen the files but the whole notion of biological warfare was something that Australian scientists would not be comfortable with today. “Viewed through today’s eyes it is clearly an abhorrent suggestion,” Dr French said.
When in fact it was the subcommittee of the Australian DFAT that had discussed the possibility of chemical and biological warfare against Asian invasion, and not MacFarlane Burnet.